Life Along the Border in 1920s Ireland (A Short Story)

He'd had a narrow escape the day before. They had almost caught him and he was lucky that he managed to elude them. An icy cold sweat broke out on his furrowed brow as he remembered it. He had started out just as the sun rose above the copse that surrounded his small, lime washed, thatched cottage at the top end of the town. After dressing in silence he stoked the fire, hung the kettle on the chimney hook, over the flames, and as it boiled, readied his mug. Glancing in the mirror to straighten his hat and tie, two clear blue eyes looked back at him and chuckling he thought, you'll do. He had shaved the night before knowing it would give him more time in the morning. Placing several bricks of peat on the dying embers in the open hearth, he drained his mug and stepped outside.

Breathing deeply, savoring the clear, crisp December morning air, he made his way to the stable where he kept his pride and joy, and only means of transport. He could hear her neighing softly in recognition, and the clop of her hooves as she came towards the door to greet him. Stepping inside he inhaled the earthy smell of hay and oats mixed with the strong aroma of horse. He was met with a wet nuzzle and felt all would be well. Taking the nosebag from the hook on the wall beside the door he filled it with a mixture of oats and barley from the oak barrel and hung it loosely around her head. He loved the new mare, she was fast and responded to his every command with a willingness he had coaxed from her with gentle murmers and whispers over a period of time. Mary, his wife, had joked more than once that he thought more of the horse than he did of her.

Sadness swept over him like a cold ocean wave when the old mare died, and he felt that he would never replace her with one as good. Now, he smiled as he remembered the day that he found the new one. One spring morning he attended the fair held on the large, open square every first Friday of every month. After a lot of haggling and hand slapping he bought her from a roving gypsy, who assured him that if it wasn't for his starving children, and the pocket paralysis that beset him at that moment, he would never part with her. Telling the story later he recalled with a grin, "The gypsy man was so heartbroken to see her go, he went straight to the nearest bar to drown his sorrows."

He had an affinity with all animals and often said that he preferred them to some of the humans he knew. With the mare munching contentedly he reached over to the shelf and picked up the curry comb and stiff brush. "Good girl," he murmered softly as he began to brush her with loving, delicate strokes.

"We have a job to do today, girl. How are those new shoes, do they feel alright?"

He had asked Kelly the blacksmith, to fashion a pair of lightweight horseshoes for her and had them fitted a week earlier. She definitely seemed lighter on her feet and could run faster than before. We may need all the speed we can get before this day is over, he thought, ruefully.

With her coat a glossy black sheen, he stepped outside and walked the few paces to the well, dropped the bucket inside and waited until he heard the familiar splash as it hit the surface of the water. As he hauled the bucket up the well shaft, he thought of the day he bought the cottage, and how the well had been one of the greatest selling points for him. Pouring the fresh water in the trough which sat just inside the stable door against the left side wall, he reached over with one hand, and removed the now empty nosebag and set it on top of the oak barrel. He walked to the shed opposite, swung open the double doors, went inside and took hold of one of the shafts of his cart. Pulling it into the yard, the metal wheel rims crunched on the graveled surface, startling several watchful crows who, with angry caws took flight from their perches, high up in the old hazel tree at the roadside. He didn't like crows and thought them bad omens.

Placing the collar and the bitless bridle around the mare's neck, he guided her in between the shafts, then, coupled the straps to the rings. He refused to put a bit in her mouth as he considered them a cruel invention that made the horse suffer needlessly. He believed that if treated with care and attention any horse could be directed solely with gentle tugs on the reins. Filling the nosebag once more, he tied the neck shut and placed in in the cart under the seat. He returned to the shed, walked to the back wall and removed a short, loose board. Reaching inside, his hand closed around a small, canvas wrapped bundle which he immediately slipped into his coat pocket. After replacing the board he went outside and closed the doors. One last look around assured him that all was as should be.

By then, the sun had climbed higher in the cloudless sky, bathing them with a warm glow and it looked like it would be a good day. The sound of a thrush warbling her morning song from atop a whitethorn tree held his attention for a while. Climbing up onto the cart seat he whispered a silent prayer that all would go well. As he cracked the whip lightly above her head, the mare started moving slowly forward. Off in the distance he could see that the mist on the slopes of Slieve Gullion, the flat topped, extinct, volcanic mountain with the lake on the summit, was almost gone, and he felt better. He had made this trip many times before and knew the risks involved but had to make the choice knowing that his family had to be supported at all costs. Ireland in the mid-1920s was a tough place to live. He had to supplement his meager earnings somehow and knew of no other way than this.

The bloody civil war, which started soon after the War of Independence ended, lasted for almost a year and divided former comrades and indeed whole families, as sides were chosen in the conflict. The civil war ended in May 1923 and it was then that the country was divided. A borderline on the map annexed the six northern counties from the rest of the island. From the start he had been against the wretched treaty that the Irish Republican Army had signed with England at the end of the war of Independence. He knew that the nationalist population would be the minority then and completely at the mercy of the loyalists. Families that still considered themselves purely Irish by birth found themselves living in the British controlled area of the so called, Northern Ireland state, separate and distinct from the rest of the island. Michael Collins, who was the negotiator on the Irish side, later said that in signing the treaty he had signed his own death warrant. This was prophetic, as not long after he was killed in an ambush in County Cork, by his former compatriots.

It had already started to turn for the worse with most of the jobs going to the Loyalists. Catholics were not allowed to vote, and housing was almost non-existent. The pogroms had already started in several areas of Belfast. They were dark and frightening times. Thankfully, Frank Aiken still maintained his northern, flying column, and would be there if needed to protect the catholic population. Aiken was insistent that Catholics arm themselves for safety. We need more men like Frank, he thought and laughed silently at the irony of the whole sickening mess. What the British failed to realize was that the drawing of the border had unearthed an otherwise non-existent opportunity for him and others who were brave or foolish enough to run the gauntlet.

With the disparity that existed between the two currencies, goods bought south of the border could now be sold for a small profit on the northern side. How strange, he thought, that history does indeed repeat itself and he recalled the story his father had told him about the displacement of his ancestors by the Norman invaders in the 1100s. Some of them became highwaymen and regularly robbed the British mail coaches, partly in retribution but mostly as a way to survive. They even wrote a song about the exploits of one of the more famous, or infamous one, titled Brennan on the moor. He had heard his father sing it many times and sang it himself on occasion. He didn't feel much like singing now though, maybe later if he got home safely. Pulling back on the reins the mare slowed and came to a stop. Taking a long a swig from the bottle he had placed under the cart seat the night before, he waited for the familiar warm glow, then moved forward once more.    

They met no-one on the road south toward the border and as they passed Lough Ross he shook his head from side to side grinning wryly as he thought, fishing will never be the same again. The borderline cut invisibly across the fields and the lake, leaving one half in the Irish Republic and the other half in the Northern State. Maybe I could catch fish in the south and sell them in the north for a profit. Would the southern fish have an accent? Would the northern fish have to swear allegiance? Or would cows who ate grass on the southern end of a field have to pay duty on their milk if sold in the north? He laughed again silently at his own jokes.

All of these questions because of that Collins fella. He should have held out for total freedom. Shaking off the annoying reverie, he noticed that he was almost at the border, the only visible evidence a large yellow sign that read in large, forbidding letters Unapproved Road. He stopped and looked all around taking in the hedgerows and fields. All seemed quiet with no-one else in sight, but you never knew.

Here we go, he thought and with a sharp snap of the reins, they moved off again, and crossed the invisible borderline.

They made good time and soon he could see the spire nestled atop the bell tower of the little church in the distance, and knew that they would arrive in the small market town in ten more minutes. He decided to go straight to the poultry market on the other side of the town and not make any stops. Best to keep it simple, he thought. He pulled back slowly on the reins as they came to the corner where the poultry pens sat stacked neatly in rows and said, "good afternoon," to the owner, a red faced, good natured soul that he knew well.

"And the same to you John, any trouble coming down?"

"No trouble Jim, it's going back that I'm worried about."

"Did you get the new shoes we talked about the last time?"

"Yes, I had her fitted last week. James Kelly made them for me."

Kelly's forebears had been blacksmiths, and had made the pikes for the 1798 rebellion. He wasn't shy about telling you that fact or anyone else who would listen.

"Well then you have nothing to worry about, Kelly is the best blacksmith north or south. If they spot you she'll outrun them with ease."

"I hope so, Kelly said the same thing."

As they talked he retrieved the nosebag and let the mare eat again.

"How many do you want today?"

"That all depends on the price."

"Six pounds for a dozen and that's a great bargain."

"Sure, it's a great bargain all right, for you Jim."

"You're a hard man to deal with John," he replied laughing.

"I'll give you three pounds."

"Aw, come on now, that's too little. Make it five."

"That's daylight robbery Jim, best I can do is four and you load them."

"You're the hardest man I ever dealt with, John."

“Tell you what I’ll do, eight pounds for two dozen. You know that I will be back for more, god willing.”

Then, with a loud slap of hands the bargain was struck. Soon six small wire cages containing clucking chickens were placed in the back of the cart and readied for the journey north. Both men spread a large cover made of several jute bags sewn together, across the cages.

“That will keep them quiet.”

“Yes it will and away from prying eyes too.”

Reaching under the seat he felt around for the bottle, finding it, he brought it out and called,

"Jim, I have something for you."

Keeping it under his coat he waited for Jim to get close and then slipped it to him quickly.

“Is this what I think it is?”

The men exchanged knowing glances and nodded their heads.

"Have one for the road, John."

"Maybe I will," he said and jumped back down off the cart.

They went inside and once out of sight two short glasses were produced. Jim held the bottle up to the light and said,

"Clear as crystal, this is the good stuff."

Uncorking the bottle he poured two healthy drinks of the illicit nectar. This was the homemade drink of choice for the discerning Irishman. 


"Your health, Jim."

Jim reached into the inside pocket of his coat and brought out a sealed, long brown envelope and handed it to John.

“Here, before I forget. If you run into any trouble make sure you burn this.”

With that, the glasses were emptied and after a sharp salute, John started out on the return journey. One more stop girl and then we will head home.

Two miles outside the town he pulled gently on the reins and stopped beside a small, two roomed, ivy covered cottage which sat back off the roadside, and whistled twice. Immediately, two men wearing long, trench coats, collars turned up, their faces obscured by large, broad brimmed fedoras, came outside and approached him hurriedly. Each man wore a wide leather belt around his waist, to which was attached a brown leather holster. A third man dressed identically, stood at the ready in the shadows of the open doorway, cradling a Thompson machine gun, unmoving. The two men were each carrying a grey woolen blanket tied securely at both ends and the middle. Ever watchful, and with furtive glances all around, they placed them in the concealed compartment under the body of the cart and slid the bolt shut. A sharp salute, then all three men disappeared back inside the cottage with not a word spoken.

A knot was forming in the pit of his stomach as he again neared the border and with twilight dropping slowly, he pulled back on the reins. "Whoa, girl," he said in a low voice.

The mare, obeying his command stopped and stood perfectly still, waiting. His eyes, ever alert, cast slow, piercing glances across the landscape missing no detail. He noticed the birds nesting in the hedgerows warbling their evening song and the cows in the fields lazily chewing. He saw the sheep lying at ease in the lush meadow on the other side of the road. His gaze turned upward and watched as a small flock of rooks completed their approach and settled in the sprawling branches of a white oak tree. Ahh… home for the night. All was serene, nothing seemed out of place. Directing his gaze forward once more he peered off into the distance and could see the town on the hill, two miles away, his town, his home. As darkness descended, he saw that the lamps were slowly being lit, one by one. It was time to go. A couple of loud clicks of his tongue, a gentle snap of the reins and they moved forward.

Illuminated by the glow of soft moonlight, the ribbon of road stretched out before him. The rhythmic clip clop of the hooves the only sound in the still night air. His night vision was now fully adjusted to the darkness but his view of the town was temporarily obscured as the road dipped abruptly before rising to the brow of a low lying hill. He stopped on the crest and ever wary, scanned the horizon. His sharp gaze noticed a familiar narrow laneway on his right with thick blackthorn hedges growing on both sides. He knew the owner of the house at the end of the lane and had availed of his hospitality on more than one occasion. On each of the two large stone pillars a hinged wrought iron gate hung in the open position. Suddenly, a faint flicker of light about a half mile away, just beyond the crossroads, caught his attention. Rubbing his eyes he looked again, nothing. That’s strange. Knowing the area well he was sure there were no houses on that stretch. Maybe it’s a will-o-the-wisp he chuckled nervously, remembering stories he had heard his father tell him as a boy.

There it was again! This time there was no mistake. Two points of light, reminding him of a cat blinking its eyes, flickered twice and then abruptly stopped. From the opposite side of the road and about one hundred yards closer to where he sat, three more flickers. Aha, you bastards, I see you. You’ve got the crossroads covered! Bloody customs men!  He dreaded them especially as he knew that they were in cahoots with the police. His alternate routes cut off, he thought of the items concealed underneath the body of the cart and made an instant decision. Jumping off the cart he took the reins and led the horse slightly past the gateway. Then with an experienced hand, backed the cart into the laneway, closed the gates and tied the reins to one of them. He hung the nosebag around the horses head and patting her softly on the neck leaned close and said,

Shhhhh, now you be quiet girl.”

The old, well-greased metal bolt slid back silently allowing him to retrieve the bundles hidden underneath.  Looking all around once more he was satisfied it was safe to move them. Grasping the cords he hefted the bundles onto his shoulder and walked toward the house at the end of the lane. As he neared the dwelling he was comforted to see there was a light in one of the small windows. Tapping gently on the glass using a pre-arranged signal, he waited. Soon the curtain was drawn and a familiar face peered out, instant recognition prompted the owner to quickly open the door.

“Are they out again tonight John?” he whispered.

“Yes they’re out, damn them, at least two of them, one on either side of the crossroads.”

“Come on, follow me.”

The two men moved silently around to the back of the house and stopped outside a large hay barn.  Inside were stored enough bales to last as fodder for the animals through the remaining months of the year. Once inside they wasted no time moving several bales from the front of the large stack. This revealed a 12’x12’ compartment lined on three sides with wide wooden planks. A series of shelves on which lay more similar bundles, were attached to two of the walls. Several large boxes were stacked neatly in one corner, the stenciled markings denoting the contents. Pinned on the third wall was an old, torn and stained, tri-colored flag. Beneath the flag on six metal hooks hung broad brimmed, black fedoras. Below the hats on six more hooks hung heavy, olive-green trench coats. Both men stood to attention and facing the flag, saluted. After placing the bundles on a shelf they returned the bales to their original position and walked back to the house in silence.

Inside the two men sat hunched over a small wooden table. A well-polished oil lamp, suspended on a chain from a hook in the ceiling, hissed quietly, illuminating a small waterproof, much creased map which was spread out on the surface. On top of the map lay a Webley pistol, a small box of ammunition and the sealed envelope.

“Better to leave these with me tonight John, safer.”

“Yes I agree, we must be careful.”

“Well, we can’t afford you being arrested or, God forbid, shot. We’ve lost enough good men already.”

“Don’t worry, I have no intention of letting that happen.”

“Have you anything else in the cart?”

“Yes, I have two dozen chickens.”

“Ok, I’ll give you a receipt for them. When they stop and search you, just say you bought them from me.”

Opening the drawer a receipt book and pen were taken out and placed on the table, then after putting the weapon and ammunition in the drawer, the map was folded and pushed to one side.

 “How much did you pay for the fowl?”

“I gave Kelly eight pounds.”

Some quick calculations were done, the receipt handed over, which John slipped into his pocket.

“What about the stuff in the barn?”

“Don’t worry about that, I’ll send for someone later tonight to take it over the fields. One way or another it will be in place for tomorrow night.” After a handshake and salute the men parted.

Walking slowly along the lane, John felt in his pocket for the receipt. Re-assured, he removed the nosebag, led the horse and cart out onto the road and climbed aboard. Breathing deeply and saying a silent prayer he clicked his tongue, snapped the reins lightly and they moved forward. Just before reaching the crossroads a sudden movement caused him to look toward his right. The horse kept a steady pace and trotted forward slowly. When they came alongside a gated entrance to a field he saw that the gate was opened inwards. Peering intently, he could see the silhouette of a large car parked just inside the opening facing the road and as the cart passed, he heard the car door closing. The crossroads now behind them, they moved forward at a leisurely pace. Crossing the low stone bridge that spanned a narrow, fast flowing stream, the growl of the car as its engine started prompted him to act quickly. Before the mare could react to the sudden noise, he tightened the reins and kept her head down, saying softly,

“Whoa, take it easy girl.”

Keeping pace with the cart, the car followed behind, its engine purring quietly in low gear. Further up the road he could he could see the other car moving slowly toward them. Unnerved, John did what he always did in tense situations, he whistled. A soft and airless melody at first, but as his courage took hold he recalled an old song he had often heard his father sing and soon the notes carried upward on the night air. Suddenly, the darkness was gone as the headlights on the car behind him were turned on. Gripping the reins tighter his eyes followed the long eerie shadow of the horse and cart as it moved along the road ahead of them. As the car in front crept nearer the sensation of being trapped heightened, but with stubbornness he continued to whistle. Remembering what his father and others had often told him to do when in bad situations, he now put their advice to the test. Don’t panic, whatever you do. Take control of the situation. Let them come to you.

With those thoughts guiding him, and still whistling he jumped from the cart, stood holding the reins and waited. The second cars headlights turned on then bathing the whole area with sharp, blinding light and he instinctively lowered his head and closed his eyes. The mare stood still and unafraid, the dazzling lights seeming not to affect her. Both cars rolled slowly closer and then stopped. Sandwiched between the two vehicles he raised his head, opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder just as the driver stepped from the vehicle. Looking forward, he could see two more figures emerge from the second car. As the three men got closer he could see that two of them wore customs officer uniforms, the light reflecting off the peaks of their caps. The third wore the uniform of police officer and a quick glance revealed a holstered pistol on the belt around his waist. Stay calm!

“Is that you John?” asked one of the men.

“Oh, it’s John alright,” the man behind him said.

“I’d know that ugly face anywhere,” laughed the police officer.

“You’re out late tonight Johnny boy.”

“Yes I am. The mare threw one of her shoes earlier, slowed me down a bit. My wife will kill me when I get home.”

“Do you have anything to declare?”

“I have some fowl that I purchased earlier.”

“Anything else?”

“No, just the fowl, that’s all.”

“Are you sure about that now, because if you have anything else, you will regret it?”

“I’m sure, lord knows I don’t want to have any regrets.”

“Then you won’t object if we search you and the cart, will you.”

“Not at all, search all you want.”

Thinking that they would just search the main body of the cart, he was shocked when the police officer got on his knees, reached under and slid the bolt on the compartment. As the hinged flap opened, a set of horse shoes, hammer, nails and a small can of axle grease fell out onto the road. Laying on his back to get a better view, the officer searched the recess. Satisfied, he rose to his feet and as he angrily kicked the tin of grease said,

“There’s nothing there. Nothing at all.”

How did he know about the compartment? That’s the first time they’ve ever done that! Damn them! We’ll have to change tactics again. The customs officers had already pulled the cover back revealing the wire cages. After counting the fowl they replaced the cover.

“Do you have a receipt for these?”

As John reached for his pocket the police officer stopped him saying,

“Put your hands up, I’m going to search you.”

Raising his arms above his head he stood as the officer searched his pockets. With his face inches from his, John looked unflinching, in the officers angry, steel blue eyes. The strong odor of alcohol on his breath felt sickeningly hot on his face. Finding the receipt, he handed it to one of the customs officers saying, “Make sure this is alright and be sure to check it thoroughly.”

Then turning back to John, said,

“We are watching you John, just remember that. We are keeping a close eye on you.”

John, biting his tongue thought, You’d better keep both eyes on me boyo, because we’re watching you too.  

Handing him the receipt the customs officer said,

“Everything seems to be in order here. We wish you goodnight.”

Gathering the horseshoes, nails and grease can from the road, he placed them in the cart and climbed onto the seat once more.  He clicked his tongue, snapped the reins and finally they were on their way. Relieved that the ordeal was over, he relaxed and without a backward glance, started to softly hum a favorite tune. As the mare trotted surefooted and steady, bringing them both safely toward home, the humming soon became a song.

God save Ireland cried the heroes

God save Ireland cry them all.

If on the battlefield we die

Or upon the scaffold high,

God save the heroes one and all.” 

From "Don't Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me."

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Views: 1309

Tags: Books, Gifts, Irish Freedom Struggle

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Comment by Irish Cultural Society of GC on March 1, 2015 at 3:07pm

John,  You have a winning style.  Your choices of what information to withhold from your readers are spot on.  You hold the grip until the right moment, releasing your now rewarded reader.  Thanks for the ride.  John M. Walsh

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on March 1, 2015 at 3:44pm

Thank you once again John for the kindly words. And, yes I believe a good story should both inform and thrill the reader. 


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